A Privilege and a Challenge
No culture has ever been able to provide a better shipyard for building storm-proof vessels for the journey of man from the cradle to the grave than the individual nourished in a loving family.
—Laurens van der Post and Jane Taylor
Back in the days when women permed their hair a lot, a mother was getting ready for a late date with her husband. While rinsing her hair in the kitchen sink, she heard the unmistakable rustlings of two little boys who were supposed to be in bed.
Lifting her mouth above the stream of hot tap water, she hollered, "You kids get back in bed!" The little boy noises quickly subsided, but as soon as she lathered up again, once more the telltale thumps and bangings wafted down from upstairs. Now beginning to get angry, the mother wrapped a towel around her head, marched over to the foot of the stairs, and yelled, "The next time I hear you, I'm coming up there!"
Confident her threat would eliminate the problem, she returned to the sink to finish her hair. But no sooner were her tresses underwater once more than she heard her kids running around again. Furious, she again threw the towel around her head, bounded upstairs, stormed into the room where her two boys were playing, and scolded loudly, "I told you to get in bed, I mean for you to get in bed, and you had better stay in bed!"
By this time the mother was so perturbed she decided to stand unseen just outside the door to see if her sons obeyed. As she silently lurked a few feet from her chastened sons, she heard her youngest boy whisper to his older brother, "Who was that?"
Isn't it amazing? The same kids who one moment can make us red-faced with anger can in the next instant make us roar with laughter. We cherish them more than we do our own lives—even though they know exactly how to drive us crazy.
But that's the deal with parenting! To be called "Mom" or "Dad" is a tremendous privilege with a corresponding challenge that is just as great.
The Unspeakable Privilege
God tells us over and over in His Word that rearing children for Him is a magnificent privilege, a blessing from heaven intended to fill our lives with joy. I have been fathering now for nearly four decades and now have more than a decade of grandparenting experience. And yes, Donna and I have experienced both the golden moments of laughter and tender joy as well as days and nights when our hearts were heavy with anxiety and sadness.
While I don't consider myself a great father, through the years I have learned a great many lessons. I'm now a grandpa with silver hair, and I can testify that it's crucial (as well as infinitely worth it) to start at the very beginning to influence our children for God, to make them a top priority in our lives. I'm so glad that early in the lives of my children, I decided to make my family a high priority. Never have I regretted that decision.
But it took a whack between the eyes to get me to make that choice.
A Whack Between the Eyes
After graduating from seminary and spending two years as an apprentice, I was called to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to start a church. We began with seven families meeting for worship in a mobile home. I was so excited! At last, my first pastorate!
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My BMW used to be flawless. With three kids, my Audi is anything but. Yet my life has greatly improved. God has brought more blessing into my life through these three children than any material possession ever could. Trust me. It's a lot more fun raising kids than BMWs.
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Like most recent graduates just entering the job market, my greatest motivation in those early days was not desire, but fear—fear of failure. I remember driving around the community and thinking, Look at all these established churches everywhere. Here I am, meeting in a cornfield in a trailer. How in the world is this ever going to work? I don't want to fail. What will all my seminary buddies say if they hear Jeremiah buried a church in a trailer in a cornfield in Indiana?
I'd like to say I was spiritually motivated—and I hope that to some degree I was—but frankly, my primary motivation was a raging desire to avoid failure.
Even with such a tiny congregation, I never worked so hard in my life. I visited homes every night of every week, and almost the whole day on Saturdays. I even visited people in the afternoon if I could get appointments. Every Friday I organized all the contacts I had collected throughout the week, got on the phone in my tiny office, and called every name on my list to see if I could make more appointments. I did this not only to find convenient times to visit, but also because I knew I wouldn't chicken out of visiting if I held a confirmed appointment.
Week after week I kept this up. My appointment book looked like it belonged to an insurance salesman.
In the middle of this frantic activity, Donna and I were trying to rear two little children, Janice and David, born just thirteen months apart. Of course, Donna was doing more of the rearing than I was. She was always at home with our kids; I never was.
Have you heard of the classic "absentee father"? That was me. Night after night I lived this frenzied lifestyle. I was trying to shepherd a flock scattered across two counties ... too preoccupied to notice that the little lambs under my own roof needed me just as much, if not more.
By the time I came home in the evenings, Donna was exhausted from caring for our little ones all day. Secretly I hoped both the children and my wife would be fast asleep by the time I rolled in. Usually we had little contact except for breakfast; then the whole cycle began again.
Eventually I started hearing some warning signals from my wife. (No doubt the signals had been sent long before, but I hadn't been receiving them.) Signals such as "Are you going to be out again tonight?"
To fully appreciate Donna's dilemma you must remember that I was doing "God's work." How could she fight against the Lord? Even so, at some point she quietly but persistently began to ask that question—and a couple of times I got angry about it. "Honey," I'd lecture, "I'm the gross national product of this church. I'm it. This is all there is. I'm the staff, the secretary. If I don't do it, it's not going to be done. I've got to get out there."
And I saw the sadness in her eyes.
One morning we sat down at the kitchen table, and no matter how long I live, I'll never forget what my sweet, dear wife said to me.
"Honey," she announced, "I will never again ask you about how you spend your time. I don't know how to do that in light of what you do. But I've been praying about this, and the Lord just told me this: You are the priest of this family. These children are your responsibility. And I'm going to hold you responsible to make the right decisions."
WHAM! It's amazing the wallop a little fifteen-second speech can pack. Moments later I dropped to my knees and cried out, "God, You didn't call me to this place to destroy my family in the name of building a church. There is no conflict in Your will. I'm a father first. And if You'll help me, by the grace of God, I'll make my children the priority from this day on. They will come first."
As best as I know, from that day on my children became the priority, and I have never regretted it.
Neither will you.
A Great Day without Regret
I don't like clichés, but the truth is, some clichés contain the gospel truth. For instance, "No one on their deathbed says, 'I wish I had spent more time at the office.'" I've never heard anyone say that, but I have heard a lot of people say, "I wish I'd spent more time with my children."
No doubt that truth was rattling around a lonely man's heart many years ago during the fearful days of World War II. While his son was off fighting in some far-distant corner of the world, the man sat down to compose the following anguished verses:
I wish I had the power to write
The thoughts wedged in my heart tonight
As I sit watching that small star
And wondering where and how you are.
You know, Son, it's a funny thing
How close a war can really bring
A father who for years with pride
Has kept emotion deep inside.
I'm sorry, Son, when you were small
I let reserve build up that wall.
I told you, "Real men never cry."
And it was Mom who always dried
Your tears and smoothed your hurts away
So that you soon went back to play.
But, Son, deep down within my heart
I longed to have some little part
In drying that small tear-stained face.
But we were men. Men don't embrace.
Suddenly I found my son
A full grown man with childhood done.
Tonight you're far across the sea
Fighting away for men like me.
Well, somehow pride and what is right
Have somehow changed places here tonight.
I find my eyes won't stay quite dry
And that real men sometimes do cry.
And if we stood here face to face,
I'm sure, my son, we would embrace.
Our children are too precious and their time with us too short for us to neglect the unspeakable privilege we have in loving them, nurturing them, shaping them, and preparing them to step out into the wide world.
Many years ago at the high school graduation of my son David, a moment occurred that is forever frozen in my memory. As the graduates walked up the stairs and across the stage to receive their diplomas, I leaned over and whispered in my wife's ear, "I have no regrets."
Then, as now, I was a busy pastor with a growing congregation and an active family. But as David took that diploma, I realized with pleasure that I hadn't missed out on his high school years. I hadn't missed any of his athletic events (okay, maybe I missed one or two). I had been there. As I watched my boy walk across that stage, I delighted in being able to look back and, despite all the other voices clamoring for my attention, say that I wasn't sorry for saying no to a lot of other things so that I could say yes to him.
If you are a parent, God has granted you the high privilege of raising a son or a daughter for Him. No matter what else you're involved in, regardless of what else you're doing, make your children a high priority. God has given you an amazing privilege! Say no to other things before you say no to your kids.
In fact, I recommend that you make it a point, every once in a while, to let your children know you have chosen them over something that is extremely important to you. Every now and then your children need to see that you have chosen to skip part of your career pursuits in order to be with them. I've tried to practice this myself.
I once flew home from a very important meeting to attend a ball game. Another time I flew home from a strategically critical gathering to take care of a son who had busted up his ankle. I couldn't do that very often, of course, but I had to do it every once in a while. Why? Because I wanted each of my four children to realize, Hey, I'm important. My parents care about me.
And that kind of attitude shouldn't dry up simply because they've left the nest. When I first came to serve as pastor at Shadow Mountain Community Church, all of my children were in school, the oldest in the eighth grade. No longer. Today my wife and I are empty nesters. How times have changed! But what has never changed is my commitment to the welfare of my children. It is every bit as much a privilege to be their father today as it was when they were in diapers (maybe more so, because grandpas don't have to change diapers nearly as much as daddies do). The nature of my responsibility changed as my children grew up and left home, but the fact that I have a responsibility has never disappeared. They'll always be my kids!
We Get What We Sow
Not only is it a great privilege to invest in the lives of our children, but I find it's smart to remember the rationale behind such a wise investment: We get what we sow.
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Caring for a family has never been easy. No one said it would be. But the price we pay to follow God's plan is worth every cost.
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Sometimes I hear parents declare that we should not try to influence our children, but rather should let them adopt their own values and form their own opinions. Secular people with whom I have debated family issues often have said to me, "You people try to force your values on your children. We believe that children ought to be allowed to choose their own values and make their own moral judgments. That way, they can grow up with a spirit of independence and be who they really are."
That may sound wise and noble, but such thinking betrays at least two fatal flaws: First, when you and I as parents refuse or neglect to teach our children values and sound moral principles, we violate clear teaching from Scripture. (And you can never, ever succeed when you walk in opposition to the declared will of God.) The New Testament reminds us fathers that we are to bring up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). And the Old Testament, if anything, makes this even clearer. Moses told the people of Israel:
You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. (Deuteronomy 6:7)
In other words, we are to dedicate our entire lives to teaching and training and forming and cultivating in the lives of our children the values that we have received from our godly forebearers. So I reject the idea of letting children form their own values, because such a practice is inconsistent with the Bible, a book that you and I should hold very important.
Second, such a valueless approach to family life makes no sense. If I say I will not try to shape the values of my children, I am declaring that it is okay for anyone and anything else to influence and shape the way they believe and think. You say you don't want to force your views and beliefs on your children? Fine. But please don't assume that therefore they will not be influenced.
If you do not influence them, someone else will. If you are not shaping their values, others will do it for you. The issue is not, Will my child be influenced? The issue is, Who will be that influence?
Most parents I know prefer to wield the greatest influence in the lives of their children. They wisely want to make the major investment in their children's lives so that the values of their offspring largely reflect their own. That's the most basic rationale for investing our life energies in the lives of our children.
We have a God-given responsibility and privilege to provide critical input for our sons and daughters, and we mustn't shirk it. We are at the heart of God's training plan for the children He gives us.
A Privilege to Be Guarded
It cannot be said too often: When God gives us children, He grants us an astonishing privilege, a blessing wholly from His loving heart of grace. That amazing truth was driven home to me shortly after I accepted the pastorate at Shadow Mountain.
We thought it would be interesting to drive up into the mountains for the weekend to enjoy the snow. In the Midwest we had seen plenty of the cold, white stuff, of course, but not many Californians knew how to enjoy it like they did back home. We had been invited to spend a day at a little camp nestled in the mountains, at the former homestead of cowboy actor Tim Holt. So all six of us piled into the car and headed for a Saturday away—just the family.
As we drove higher and higher, we indeed passed some snow. Lots of it. My children made me promise that on the way back we'd stop and play in the drifts. Finally, after rumbling over a crooked, rutted road, we arrived at the camp, which was filled with beautiful Shetland ponies and horses and lots of dogs. I'll never forget that day. We laughed, we ran, we played together as a family.
One dog completely enveloped Daniel with unfriendly licks (at least, Daniel thought they were unfriendly!). Jennifer mounted a Shetland pony, but couldn't figure out how to make it stop. I wish you could have seen her face when the pony took off! David had the opposite problem. His mount refused to budge. No matter how deep and sepulchral my son made his voice, that horse wouldn't stir. It might as well have been a wooden horse on a carousel. And so went the day.
As we piled into the car to head back down the highway and return home, my mind reveled in the excitement of our family excursion. There hadn't been many of them since we moved to California. As promised, on the way back we pulled off the road at a place the snow piled high along the highway. Before anyone got out of the car I gave clear instructions to the whole family: "Whatever you do, stay on the passenger side of the car. Don't you dare get over on the driver's side! Get as far away from the road as you can."